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Ex-North Star Claiborne Shines

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By Leland Stein III

DETROIT — He’s back to his football roots. Having played middle linebacker in high school and college, where he made All-State and All-American, the Lions’ Chris Claiborne is finally rooted in the middle of things.


With the opportunity to get back in the middle of things, Claiborne, who won the 1998 Butkus Award (the top linebacker award in the country) while at USC, is leading the Detroit Lions’ resurgence, playing at a level that is sure to earn him All-Pro honors.
In sports, the middleman generally is the linchpin of the team. In baseball, the middleman is the catcher; he calls the signals and settles the pitcher. In basketball, the middleman is generally the center; he patrols the middle on both defense and offense. In football, the middle linebacker generally gets the defensive signals and calls the huddle.
“Playing the middle is like playing quarterback on defense,” said Lions’ coach Marty Mornhinweg. “He (Claiborne) feels most comfortable there and it shows with his play recently. We expect him to be one of the leaders on defense and on the team. I know he’s up to the task.”
Added Lions’ All-Pro defensive end, Robert Porcher: “I expect big things from Chris. He’s the leader of the defense. He’s our quarterback. He’s at a level we need him at for our defense to meet the task of helping this team improve.”
Claiborne, 23, had been a victim of his own athletic ability. Possessing fullback agility — he was an All-State tailback in high school — his mobility left the coaching staff no choice but to plug him into the void at outside linebacker, since the middle was in capable hands with Steve Boyd. However, Boyd sustained an injury and Claiborne stepped in, starting the Lions’ last 12 games in the 2001 season.
Playing outside linebacker, Claiborne had to learn to play at a more controlled pace while covering the NFL’s speedy halfbacks, which is something 95% of the NFL middle linebackers cannot do. During Claiborne’s rookie year he was somewhat uncomfortable on the outside, but he survived. In fact, the outside switch Chris so desperately did not want, turned out to be a blessing.
“I think playing the outside was good for me,” said Claiborne. “I feel like I understand much better what they (outside linebackers) have to do out there. I see the whole defense better and I’m aware of more than just my individual position.”
The 4-year veteran is ready to show the world why he was chosen No. 1 by the Lions in the 1999 draft. Knowing that he was going to be the man in the middle of the
Lions defense, Claiborne dedicated himself to a rigorous off-season conditioning program. It paid off, as he lost 13-pounds and now weighs a ballerina-like 252 and is prowling on defense like a hungry Lion.
“I ‘m very pleased with Chris’ effort,” said Lions defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer. “He loves to play and he’s just a big tough guy in the middle. He gets the team lined up and he’s starting to lead by example.”
Noted Porcher: “What I like most about him is his hitting power. He gets incredible leverage when he confronts the offensive linemen and when he attacks the ball carriers.”
Chris says it wasn’t “too hard” to move back to the middle, although the positions are very different. “I am letting loose now, allowing myself to be aggressive and make the play,” he said.
Lions’ fans are hoping Claiborne invokes memories of Joe Schmidt and Junior Seau.
Leland Stein is a veteran journalist/columnist, he can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com

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